Just How Many Languages Does Jenn Know?

I thought we’d catch up with Jenn in her journey toward earning a doctorate at the University of Minnesota. She appreciates all your prayers for her and for Brian.

Soon, she’ll be starting her fourth (and last) year of classes. In the fall, she will teach her third German language class. In the spring, she will be proposing her dissertation topic and receiving feedback on it, a process which will start the last chapter of her program.  She will then have two years to write her dissertation. Jenn’s research focus is in Medieval German love poetry, but she has also taken a lot of language classes. I asked her about them.

Just How Many Languages Does Jenn Know?

The rest of this post is written by Jenn…

“Living Languages”

Some of you may already know that as an undergrad at Stetson I was a double-major in English and German.   I first started learning German as a freshman in high school and enjoyed it so much that I added it to my degree plan in college.  English was a no-brainer.  Even as a child I spent most of my free time reading and writing.

“Dead Languages”

I loved the classes I took in undergrad about Medieval English literature, and I ‘ve always been drawn to fairy tales, stories of knights, and mythology from central and northern Europe.  Putting these two interests together, I decided to go for a Medieval German literature degree in Minnesota.  To be able to engage with this body of literature, I needed to be able to read it and started taking courses on all the cool “dead languages” that I could find. Below is a list of what I have taken so far.  I’ve been trained to navigate the grammar and to pronounce the words, but I can still only read texts in these languages with a dictionary at hand.

The languages are called “dead” because there are no people alive today who speak these as first languages.  However, it’s a bit of a misleading label, because nearly all of the languages listed below are simply older versions of still-living languages. . . they are still spoken today, just in a very different–even unrecognizable–way.

Old English (Spoken in England; 5th century through 12th century; Beowulf is written in this language.)

Middle English (Spoken 13th century through 15th century; The Canterbury Tales are written in this language by Chaucer. Shakespeare is NOT “Old English”. He wrote in Early Modern English.)

Middle High German (Spoken 1050-1350 in the southern regions of what we would call Germany today. The Nibelungenlied was written in this language, which–along with an Old Norse version of the myth–inspired Wagner’s Ring Cycle, which in turn inspired the cultural image of a large Brunhilde with long blond braids and a horned helmet singing at the top of her lungs.)

In the fall, I will be learning Old Saxon (Spoken 8th to 12th centuries; this would later develop into what we call Low German languages, like Dutch and northern German dialects.)

Old Norse (spoken by Scandinavians 9th century through 13th century. Still spoken in Iceland today. The famous Icelandic sagas were written in this language.)

Gothic (3rd-10th century. The only East Germanic language we have in writing, thanks to a very early translation of the New Testament, which is usually the first text that is translated into a language–a missionary rule of thumb that stretches from the Middle Ages all the way to the present! The translation gives cultural clues about Gothic as well as linguistic clues about the Germanic language family, and is still valuable to scholars.)

Classical Latin (I primarily learned the Latin used by Caesar, Cicero, and Virgil, all B.C. This language was no longer spoken as a first language by the 6th century. Among the people conquered by the Roman Empire, everyday Latin eventually turned into French, Spanish, Portuguese, Romanian, and Italian.)

Medieval Latin (Used by academics and ecclesiastics between 4th and 13th centuries. Not too different than Classical Latin, though some vocabulary has shifted in meaning. Bede, the famous Anglo-Saxon historian, wrote in this language. Because he wrote in Latin and not Old English, he was able to be read widely on the continent and was extremely popular, despite England being on the edge of nowhere at the time.)

Old Occitan (formerly known as Provencal; a region in the south of present-day France. It sounds a lot like French and Spanish mixed together. Spoken 8th-14th centuries. The troubadours wrote in this language.)

Old French (spoken in what we would now call northern France, spoken 8th to 14th centuries. The French versions of the Arthurian romances were written in this language, most famously by Chretien de Troyes.)


  • I asked Jenn if she had to learn new alphabets, too. She wrote: “I didn’t really need to learn a new alphabet, just a few new letters (like thorn, eth, and wynn) and those were transferable across various languages.”
  • The photo is from Jenn and Brian’s camping trip on their second wedding anniversary this summer.
  • High German is the standard literary and spoken form of German, originating in the mountainous south of Germany.  Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible into German in the 16th century was significant in establishing this form of German as the standard.

One thought on “Just How Many Languages Does Jenn Know?

  1. This old teacher of German and English couldn’t be prouder!! Jenn, I feel like such an underachiever! My scant bit of Olde English and Middle German seemed adequate at the time, but… 😬
    You are amazing, and your college students are so blessed to experience your enthusiasm and knowledge.
    Dawn Wirbel


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